Last week, I decided to give myself a small night out. After work, I wandered down to the East Village to make the unhealthy life choice of Pommes Frites for dinner (dill lemon mayo, yes please). To walk off a bit of the regret, I made my way up to The Strand, fully intending to buy one cheap book and then maybe have a cup of tea nearby. Such a goal was lofty but ill-founded. Rarely do I escape that bookstore with a single volume. Usually I enter with a battle plan: check out the new releases, wander down the middle of the store to browse their selected volumes, then hook left to fiction to see what’s on offer. Sometimes authors’ names come to mind–do they have any Irvine Welsh I haven’t read yet?–but more often than not I will become drunk on cover art and stupidly low prices. I had two books already when I thought I might look for Joe Hill. The store was crowded, as usual, so I decided to work my way around the pack by looping around poetry. Once there though, I had to have a peek. Look for my favorites.
The volume of Poems, 1965-1975 I encountered was nowhere near pristine. The paperback’s cover had been worn with use and contact, the off-white surrendering to color through time alone. For some reason I love knowing that I am holding a book older than I am, no matter how far back the words inside were written. Most of the poems I had read before, and I am the proud owner of a copy of Death of a Naturalist, even if mine is a tragically recent edition. Of course, the sticker on the book said $5.95, so onto my stack it went. Straight to the train I went, and though I tried to start reading a novel on the way home, but I switched to Heaney instead. I never did get that tea.
West Virginia has strong Celtic heritage on the whole, so Irish art often feels like home to me. Seamus Heaney was a writer of simplistic beauty, who took the tiniest details and made entire scenes from the drama of merely existing. His words were like the scent of air just before a storm, fresh and ripe with promise. I’d never call myself a poet, but I’ll take the term writer. For me, the poem that cuts the deepest is “Digging.” My grandfather grew his own garden, and somehow memories of him are inextricably linked to these words for me. Maybe that’s why the poet’s death has remained on my mind today. Whatever the reason, please introduce yourself to his lovely words, beginning with “Digging” now:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.